It might sound like the kind of material used as a plot device in a comic book blockbuster, but it could solve the fuel crisis in the real world.
Chemical element thorium is being hailed as the key in the bid to find safer and more sustainable sources of nuclear energy to provide our electricity. And just like in a Hollywood movie, the race is on to be the first to fully harness that power.
Named after Norse god (and Marvel comic book hero) Thor by the Swedish chemist who identified it in 1828, thorium has taken almost 200 years to be taken seriously as an energy contender.
After a period in the 1950s and 1960s in which it flirted with thorium, the US government shut down its research into the radioactive element, preferring to go the uranium route. Critics say thorium was pushed aside because uranium was an easier component for nuclear weapons. But times have changed, and thorium’s status as a safer alternative to uranium is now a help, not the hindrance it was during the Cold War.
India, which has hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the metal amid its terrain, has announced plans to build a thorium-based nuclear reactor by 2016.
But it faces competition from China, where the schedule to deliver a thorium-based nuclear power plant was recently overhauled, meaning scientists in Shanghai have been told to deliver such a facility within the next ten years.
While thorium nuclear exploration is not new – Britain had its own reactor in Dorset carrying out tests 40 years ago – the will to make it a viable energy source is growing stronger.
Professor Roger Barlow from the University of Huddersfield is part of a team researching thorium power generation.
‘Thorium is an alternative to uranium as a way of doing nuclear fission,’ he told Metro. He said thorium is safer because an overheating thorium reactor can be simply switched off, avoiding the problem that occurred at Fukushima, for instance.
Thorium also produces less radioactive waste than uranium, waste which needs to be secured for hundreds rather than tens of thousands of years. He added that it is extremely difficult to weaponise.